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Jonathan Metzl, PhD, Presents Racism as a Public Health Threat Lecture

Jun 17, 2022

The Division of Public Health hosts the Racism as a Public Health Threat lecture series to draw the connection between racial attitudes and negative health outcomes. The series has brought in thinkers from across disciplines to discuss how community health is impacted by racism, and what can be done to increase equity in our healthcare systems. This year, Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD, presented the lecture in a seminar titled "Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentement Affect Health and Well-Being."

In his remarks, Dr. Metzl reflected on a wide-ranging sociological study he made examining attitudes in predominately White, low-income areas toward subjects such as the Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid. He found that those surveyed most often showed negative attitudes toward programs when they believed that other groups (such as immigrants or those of a lower economic class) would receive an undeserved benefit from the program. This response was consistent even when the programs provided superior healthcare and economic benefits to those being surveyed then they currently had.

According to Dr. Metzl's findings, the fear that another group may undeservedly benefit from a program or policy is a powerful driver of attitudes about healthcare in many places. The result of these attitudes can be startling: many White communities and individuals are left to navigate deteriorating healthcare infrastructure and poor community health even as they reject the programs designed to provide relief for these problems. In places, the resistance to equitable health systems can even shorten the life expectancy for Whites as well as other groups.

Part of the solution to the problem, according to Metzl, lies in creating a narrative that demonstrates the benefits of equity in health systems. Thinking of other groups as "lazy immigrants" or "welfare queens" creates a rivalry over a perceived lack of resources that is strong enough to compel people to vote against their own self-interest. By counteracting that narrative, healthcare workers and public policymakers can create more inclusive narratives that increase the health outcomes for all communities.

A panel session followed Dr. Metzl's remarks, moderated by Mary Ann Villarreal, PhD, vice president of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Utah. Panel members included Dr. Richard Furguson, adjunct professor at DFPM; Dr. Daniel Mendoza, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sociences; and Dr. Tashelle Wright, Director of the Office of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Utah School of Medicine.